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Measure Of A Man

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Thirty Two
Heartbeats

 

October 10, 2011


Hermione left an enveloping silence in her wake.

It stretched to each corner, touched the ceiling, and permeated the floors with a tension so thick she wondered if it fused to the very oxygen in the room. The mighty roaring in Hermione's ears, and the electric prickling along her skin made her muscles tense. Her heart pounded to a rhythm only wild things could understand.

Not in fear or fury.

Only adrenaline.

But when she turned to leave, the silence snapped, and a swell of demands rushed at her in a current so fast she couldn't distinguish one noise from the next.

Chairs scraped against the floor. A gavel thundered repeatedly on the wood. Voices overlapped into a sea of sound she could never hope to separate.

Hermione ignored it all.

Like a boat caught in the rage of a storm, waves of harsh, hissed words should have knocked her over, and made her sink, but she remained upright. Steadfast and floating on. The room continued to thunder to the beat of her name as she walked on and walked out.

The storm didn't calm.

The clamours didn't die.

Even when heavy doors closed behind her with a resounding clang, and the lock turned with finality, she could still hear the squall raging on. Hermione cleared the threshold, and exhaled her first ragged breath as she steadied her heart and shook the tension from her free hand.

Voices breached the barrier. Harry's rose in advocacy, pounding against the wood with a boom, while Percy's call for the room's attention—thin and sharp—sliced through the cracks.

Hermione sagged against the stone wall in a testament to the exhaustion she'd felt since the start of the summons that had left her a bit battered, but not beaten down.

She was, however, incredibly angry.

A throat cleared in the empty corridor.

Hermione opened her eyes and did a double take. The corridor was empty save for Draco, who sat in a chair opposite of her, with his legs crossed and arms folded as if he'd been waiting a while.

The badge on his belt and wand holster on his shoulder told her one thing.

He'd been reinstated.

But he didn't move, only tilted his head in question. "Did you comply?"

"I… did."

Hermione was almost in arm's reach when Percy's voice rose to an uncharacteristic volume behind her. She paused as Draco's eyes flickered above her head to the shut door, momentarily distracted, but then they dropped back. He quirked an eyebrow.

"Mostly."

When he rose to his feet, he didn't look impressed. "What happened?"

Their carefully crafted plan should have had her in and out in five minutes, with Harry pulling rank to be the one to perform the memory extraction and planting Draco's with the investigators, but even the best laid plans sometimes went askew at the start of a battle.

"Everything started as we'd planned, but after Harry's extraction, Tiberius presented a written order for an additional statement under Veritaserum."

Draco's eyes widened. None of them had expected it, and her abject refusal and subsequent discourse was the sole reason why what should have been a short appearance had gone on for nearly half an hour.

"I first cited my refusal. I'm a victim not a criminal, but Tiberius led the push back and had the gall to accuse me of not giving a true memory."

He wasn't wrong, but righteous indignation was always the best defence.

"I reminded them that I've never been trained as an Occlumens, so I lack the ability to fabricate memories. Then, I cited medical reasons for my refusal. I don't know how Veritaserum would interact with the potions in my system. I was just as shocked as Harry when Tiberius called for a vote and they all agreed to detain me until they had a medical opinion. Harry refused for lack of due cause, I withdrew my consent for my memory, chaos broke out, and Percy arrived right when I—"

"Verbally started a war." Draco adjusted the strap of her sling, which had slipped out of place during the ordeal. Hermione remained unapologetic and a hint of amusement slipped through the crack in his demeanour. "I couldn't hear everything from out here, but I arrived at the part when someone told you that you were overreacting."

Hermione would have winced had she felt bad for anything he'd heard following that comment.

But she meant every word.

Two distinct voices were now volleying back and forth.

Percy and Tiberius.

Draco started to side step her, as if he was going to enter into the fray, but seemed to decide against it. Given the way Percy's voice carried as he cited codes and laws pertaining to protecting witnesses, he was beginning to quiet the protests. Not even Tiberius was above certain laws. He sounded as if he had the attention of every sitting member of the Wizengamot with his accusations of unethical practices during a meeting that would be available for public record.

The storm was ending as loudly as it had begun.

"We shouldn't be standing here when this ends."

Draco didn't take her hand during the quiet walk through Level Ten, but he did slow his strides to keep with hers. There was also a steady hand on her back as they took the stairs to Level Nine.

Like always lately, Hermione was frustratingly winded by the time she reached the top, silent as they waited until she caught her breath before continuing. The entrance to the Department of Mysteries was closed, and Hermione thought it was a minor miracle they made it to the lift without seeing anyone emerge.

But then the doors of the lift opened to reveal someone Hermione hadn't seen in years.

Older than she remembered, but still with elaborately curled hair, and an outfit akin to a burst of colour that didn't suit the rainy day.

Rita Skeeter.

No doubt she was about to get off the lift, but changed her mind, stepping back so they could enter.

"Hermione Granger. What a surprise. So glad to see you recovering, outside of that—" She made a sweeping gesture in her direction.

Hermione frowned knowing just what the witch meant. The changes people could see: the sling, fading bruises, visible scars, shorn hair, and the looser fit of clothes from weight she hadn't gained back.

Coy eyes slid to Draco as the lift started moving.

"And Mr Malfoy." Rita took in the sight of them standing side by side. "This is a combination I never thought I would live to see, though I shouldn't be surprised. I've heard all the tales of how he found you barely clinging to life after the attack on St Mungo's. The story is utterly compelling from what little we know, but no one has been able to get an exclusive."

Hermione knew exactly where this was going.

"Would you both mind a quick interview?"

"I definitely mind." Draco's voice was as hard as his stance, rigid like granite. After cutting his eyes over to Skeeter once in warning, he resumed staring ahead at nothing.

Blessedly, the lift was moving quickly and they were no more than two levels from their destination.

"If that's the case, perhaps I could publish an article about how chummy you two seem."

Though out of practice and feeling a little weary, Hermione knew all her tricks. She knew the comment was intended as a test of Hermione's reaction—or lack thereof—as well as an attempt to jar her into saying something that would surely be taken out of context.

"Is that all?" Yet another plan fell through when Hermione tsked and shook her head. "You've gotten quite lazy over the years."

But then she noticed Draco standing taller beside her, with his mouth fixed as if something was threatening to come out. Hermione gripped his wrist to stop him from speaking, and stepped forward, making Rita's smug expression fade slightly at first, then more when she lowered her voice.

"I'm still quite good at bug catching." The pleasant expression on Hermione's face hardened into ice. "Beetles are my preference."

The lift came to a stop and the doors opened.

"Nice to see you again, Rita."

Hermione led the way out of the lift doors and Draco followed.

Rita Skeeter did not.

Several moments passed in silence before Draco cleared his throat. "Beetles? Is that code for—"

"It's a long story." Hermione ran a hand over her hair. "She may very well publish something anyway, but—"

"I'll handle it."

Draco's hand returned to the small of her back, guiding her in the direction of his office like she hadn't been there before.

"Like with Cormac?" Hermione had been quietly curious about that for quite some time.

"Precisely."

"Did you pay—"

"I don't throw money at every problem." Draco looked vaguely amused. "I merely secured his silence in exchange for mine."

"What does that mean?"

"McLaggen is reckless. I didn't have to dig hard to find everything that makes him a liability rather than an asset. A few photos and documents. He consented to letting me wipe his memory of the day."

Hermione should have been alarmed and argued, but it wasn't the worst morally reprehensible thing she'd ever done, and besides, they'd arrived at the doorway of the Task Force's office. The last time she'd been here, everyone had quietly watched them walk to his office. She'd thought it had a lot to do with Scorpius' presence, but today, the looks were the same. While the majority kept their eyes on him, stayed at a distance, and tensed when he walked by their desks with his hand still on her back, there was a group watching and waiting for him in one of the conference rooms.

The French team.

"Go." Gesturing to his office, he waited for her to start in that direction before heading towards the conference room.

She didn't twist the knob of his office until he entered the room and witnessed them celebrate his return. The cheers were blocked by silencing charms, but their happiness was palpable.

Real.

Draco seemed to take it in stride, making a gesture for them to calm down, far more relaxed than she'd seen him at work. There was a small smirk on his face that only diminished when he started speaking, and was gone completely when, one by one, they each responded.

Hermione squinted as if lip reading a different language was a skill she could instantly develop.

Draco stopped abruptly and turned. She'd been caught. Grey eyes fell on her with an expression that made her awkwardly wave in embarrassment. He pointed to the office a little more insistently and cut his eyes at someone who spoke. With a flush warming her cheeks, she went inside and shut the door.

Exhaling deeply, she scolded herself for being so ridiculous before looking around.

Impersonal as ever, Hermione had more than enough time to peruse his office. A slightly chaotic desk, the sparse books on the shelf, the potato still on the corner, and something she hadn't expected to see: the list of places and ideas for their outings scribbled in his handwriting. A few had been crossed out, whether for her lack of interest or his she wasn't sure. It was charming, thoughtful, and Hermione couldn't help but pick it up for a closer look.

She was still trying to visibly recall each place when Draco walked in.

There was no time to put it down.

He paused, looked at what she was holding, then glanced back.

"Hi." Hermione put the parchment down like it would explode, then curled her hand at her side. "I'm—um, I'm not opposed to any place, even the ones you crossed out. Lived here my entire life and haven't seen most of these."

Draco blinked twice and it made Hermione shift her weight.

"I—"

"Tomorrow at five?" He barely gave her time to nod before adding, "Don't eat dinner."

It was her turn to stare as if he'd lost his mind, but Draco merely raised a brow as if awaiting a retort. The moment passed like ones before, vibrating with the shifting undercurrent between them. Hermione adjusted her sling and turned her head to ease the tension in her neck. A scrape of his fingers against hers made Hermione aware of his presence; they brushed once before slipping between hers and intertwining together.

A bit of calm after the storm.

Hermione turned her head and yawned as fatigue settled into her bones.

"Bad?"

"Yes." She rested her head against his chest and neither mentioned how she was shaking.

"Think you can make it until they finish?"

By the time there was a knock on his door, Hermione was seated, nearly slumped against Draco, and losing the fight against exhaustion while waiting for an Invigoration Draught to begin working. Her head felt so heavy she didn't bother lifting it when the door swung open and in walked Pansy, Harry, and Percy.

His hand didn't move. "Everything handled?"

"Yes." Percy looked the most unruffled, which was shocking, given how loud he'd gotten after her departure.

Harry looked less surprised and more intrigued. "Are you okay, Hermione?"

"Fatigue," Draco answered for her. "Pansy, is Daphne here to take her back?"

"I drove us here today."

"We barely survived," Hermione mumbled, thinking about the city bus Pansy had cut off along the way.

"Oi! I'm a good driver." When Percy pointedly looked elsewhere, she elbowed him in the side, which only made him smile. "Anyway, is anyone going to talk about the glowing potato on Draco's desk?"

"It's from Scorpius." Hermione couldn't hold back a yawn.

"Ah." Pansy also looked around. "I see you've been reinstated."

"I have." Draco sounded grim about it. "The ruling was that my actions were justified under the circumstances."

"Wait." Pansy barely held back a scoff. "No offense, but how? You abandoned your post in the middle of an active terrorism investigation to find Hermione. Not bad at all, completely justified, except for the bloody Fiendfyre you set on what ended up being a Death Eater safehouse, not to mention torching the surrounding area. They weren't even able to track the magic because the area was so thoroughly scorched."

Hermione was speechless, and could only gape at him, mouth open as questions began to pile on top of theories. The only thing diminishing her shock about the extent of Pansy's knowledge was the fact that Draco didn't look the least bit apologetic.

"My actions were deemed necessary."

"Let's start a list." Pansy dodged the glares that might as well have been daggers thrown in her direction. "Recklessness, insubordination, the intentional destruction of property and evidence, and threatening the Statute of Secrecy to the point where Obliviators had to be called in to stop the Muggles from trying to put the fire out. Your story about finding Hermione is flimsy, at best, but what about the highly illegal Portkey you made to get her back? I'm sure—"

"Are you quite finished?" Draco drawled. "I—"

"How exactly did you manage to slide out of being sacked?"

"Because he's slippery." An amused laugh escaped Harry, and it earned him a few looks. "Also the panel was split and the decision came down to Hestia."

She must have voted in his favour.

"If you must know, I burned all of Granger's magical footprint and anything that could be used by anyone for Polyjuice. I ordered the same to happen to the safehouse because I wasn't certain if she'd been inside and escaped. It was—"

"Smart." Pansy looked impressed. "Bloody unhinged. But smart."

Draco didn't disagree.

Neither did she.

The more details Hermione learned, the more dire it sounded.

"I wish they would have waited another week to clear you," Harry said.

"Agreed." A word she thought she'd never hear from Draco in response to Harry. "However, I'll be at decreased capacity for the month, so it's fine. I can still work on our project, and possibly pull in a few members of the French team to assist."

"How discreet are they?" Percy's lips pressed into a thin line.

"I'd say very." Harry shrugged. "They all refused to speak against him, resisted Veritaserum, and their memories offered no evidence to the order of events. Not certain how you gained their loyalty—"

"I earned it." Draco's hand still hadn't moved from hers. "About six years ago, they all were infected after a safehouse mission went wrong. The hospital had enough antidote for either half to get the complete regime or all to get the first seven rounds. I brewed enough to make up the difference myself. They each owe me a life debt that I have no intention of collecting. None of them would ever betray me."

Harry's eyes widened in shock. Apparently, he hadn't known.

Neither had she.

It explained so much.

"Is that how you knew about the replenishing—"

"No, that was a guess." Once again, discomfort made its way across his features. "I've never seen anyone survive with the poison in their system that long. Perhaps it had to do with the quality."

It was possible, but there were no words.

"What happened with the summons?" Draco changed the subject.

Percy folded his arms. "I've sufficiently put a larger target on my back." At Hermione's apologetic wince, he shook his hand and raised both hands. "Had to happen at some point, but they accepted the memory Harry swapped. I think we've—"

"Actually, there's one more thing we need to do." All eyes turned to Draco.

"And that is?"

"Muzzle Skeeter." He looked over at Hermione. "She approached us for an interview on our way here, but I doubt Granger's beetle threat will silence her forever."

"Yes it will." Harry cleared his throat of the laugh that was working its way out.

Pansy looked intrigued.

"Potter, explain." Despite how well they worked together, it seemed Draco would always be annoyed with Harry's existence.

"She's an unregistered Animagus. We've known about her since Fourth Year." He exchanged looks with Hermione. "Registering would call into question how long she's been able to turn into a beetle, which could lead to time in Azkaban for being unregistered. It's easier for her to stay secret, and she knows this. She'll keep quiet about whatever she's seen to protect her own skin. We're the only ones who know, but what Percy can do is issue Hermione's statement through her."

"Why would he do that?" Pansy asked brashly. "Let her rot."

The small noise Draco made spoke of his agreement.

Harry opened his mouth to explain but Percy's eyes widened.

He must have figured it out.

"Perfect." Percy looked as though he were already planning his next move. "It'll give her the attention she wants and perhaps she'll finally agree to what I've been asking her to do since June."

"What's that?"

"Attend one of Tiberius' closed door meetings as herself."



October 11, 2011


Draco had been tense from the moment they left the house after lunch, but when she asked about it, he brushed her off.

"I'm fine."

Hermione let it go.

Mostly.

She kept her eye on him the entire ride after strapping the puzzled Scorpius into the booster seat of the hired car. Draco tapped his finger on his thigh after the driver pulled out of the driveway but said nothing else, sneaking glances at his son, whose eyes were glued to the city beyond the glass.

Forever intrigued by a world he was unfamiliar with.

One he was protected from.

Scorpius turned abruptly and signed that he was hungry.

"We're nearly there."

Dinner was in a cozy Muggle restaurant. Upscale, private, and not at all kid-friendly, the meal ended up being an experiment in vegetarian dining. The service was impeccable, likely driven by the air of wealth Draco exuded, and the meal was delicious. To her surprise, Scorpius tried everything, even foods outside of his known lists of likes; it was a far cry from the boy who was as picky as his father only a few months before. Draco spent most of dinner watching them as well as the door to their private dining area—forever on guard.

Hermione sighed. "Would you relax if I told you to?"

"No."

She laughed at his petulant tone. "What if Scorpius told you to?"

Father and son exchanged looks across the table before Scorpius rubbed his hands together and signed the word calm with a stern expression. A deep chuckle and smile were covered by Draco's fist as he looked off to the side.

It worked—somewhat.

Hermione noticed the slight shift.

At the restaurant, Draco had kept one hand free to reach for the wand inside his jacket, but later, as they walked down the street, when Scorpius tugged him in the direction of street artists and vendors, he held his son's hand and they slowly began to explore. They visited each stall, and it wasn't long before they both realised Scorpius was looking for something. Not long after, he found it in the form of a wooden locket charm that opened to reveal an antique compass.

When his son tried to pay with a familiar, lone Galleon, Draco actually smirked before whispering something to him and offering the vendor several notes instead.

They presented it to her together.

A gift.

A guide.

A way home, should she ever get lost.

Hermione kept it close, and was still looking at it during their ride to their last destination. London traffic was heavier later in the day, but the sudden stops and blowing horns went unnoticed by Scorpius, who enjoyed every bit of the ride. His feet dangled and his eyes stayed glued on the passing cars, buses, buildings, and people. But Draco resumed tapping his fingers until Hermione assuaged the nerves he would never confess to having by placing the compass into her beaded bag and covering her hands with his.

"You're nervous."

"I ride in cars as infrequently as I take Scorpius out without security."

Today, he had done both. For her.

Hermione said nothing else.

A chill was in the air, and sunset was underway when she and Draco took their places as east and west amongst tourists and locals alike. Forever polar opposites, they were held together by Scorpius, who stood on the line that separated the two directions and took each of them by the hand outside of the Royal Observatory.

"You know this isn't the real spot, right?" Draco broke the lingering silence between them as they sat on the bench and watched Scorpius jump back and forth across the line. "It's a hundred yards eas—"

"I know, but he's just a kid. Let him enjoy this." Hermione grinned. "He looks happy."

He truly did.

His eyes were just as bright as they were when they pulled vegetables.

"We can stay here a while."

"Or we can take him to the planetarium."

"Oh." Hermione was startled at a sudden thought. "Yes, we can."

The following walk ended in front of a lone attendant standing next to the Sold Out sign.

"Maybe next—"

"No need." Draco presented three tickets to the woman, and she let them in with a nod and smile. "I bought every seat in the house."

Hermione didn't stop staring until they were seated in the empty planetarium. They were still early for the show, and from their reclining seats, they watched the projected nighttime sky on the ceiling as they waited. Hermione pointed out a few constellations, but overall, was torn between watching Draco and the universe that opened in Scorpius' eyes.

Fatigue rolled in, and Hermione found herself dozing, lulled by the darkness and the bits of words squished between short pauses.

A story of golden apples and the dragon who guarded them with its life.

Draco.



October 14, 2011


Hermione stared at the target.

Inhaled. Exhaled.

She tightened her grip on her wand, which felt as unfamiliar as the new hand she carried it in—an impulsive suggestion from one of their nocturnal conversations the week before. Magic was more than saying spells correctly. The effectiveness of a cast could be hindered by something as little as the wrong flick of her wrist. Hermione had avoided the issue with simple wandless spells thus far, but she was itching to try again, even if it meant swapping to her left hand until the other recovered.

A problem in the shape of Draco Malfoy—his warm presence at her back, his hand on one elbow keeping it steady, and the other on her waist—made things a little difficult.

"You're tense."

The truth was a murmur, but Draco might as well have been shouting for how close his lips were to her ear.

"You're distracting me and I think you're doing it on purpose."

"Am I?"

Hermione turned her head away from the Fabergé egg she was levitating.

"You know I'm nervous about the battery of tests today." She'd told him as much.

The ability to magically travel—at least by Floo—would make things easier and leave her feeling less confined. She could go back and forth from home without making another drive. Visit others. It wasn't much, but even a bit of independence went a long way.

"Besides, Padma was cleared yesterday." She rolled her sore shoulder. "I don't think I can go home just yet, but it was nice being there again. I miss it."

Hermione missed more than that, but it sounded too ungrateful in her own head to even mention it. Her time here was bittersweet, and while parts of her eagerly counted down the days until she could resume her life, a piece of her thought about how empty her house was now and wondered if it would be even emptier with just her in it.

The option to leave and return as she used to remained, but it was different to wake to the sound of Draco in the shower or go to sleep with the teacup he started leaving at her bedside each night to help her sleep. There was something settling about the routine she had with Narcissa braiding her hair and peeking into the library where the kids were learning. Watching Catherine handle lunch with four children became just as much of a humorous highlight as Draco backing out of a room upon spotting Albus.

"Not that I don't appreciate—"

"Granger?"

"Hmm?"

"Shut up."

Draco cupped her jaw and brought his lips to hers in a lingering kiss. Slow deliberation set the tone as he worked her mouth open, but before he could snog the words from her mind, Hermione pulled back, resting her heels on the ground.

"You kissed me already today."

This morning, in fact, right after she'd soaked with the smelly concoction Susan had given her to help soothe her skin. Draco had taken a look at her side because he had a better view than her, and though it was only the second morning, it was already beginning to hurt less. It felt like a sign that a solution had been found. Once finished, Draco had stepped between her parted legs, pulled her to the edge of the counter, and kissed her until she forgot all about Susan's orders.

They were increasingly more difficult to adhere to.

Even now.

Draco rolled his eyes; it was hard to tell if he was humoured or annoyed. "You would note the pattern of how often I kiss you, but neglect to ask why I'm breaking routine."

Hermione had a list of proverbial whys.

Unspoken acknowledgement had been the answer to the small touches of intimacy Hermione quietly looked forward to each day. It was the only thing she'd been able to handle over the course of the last few weeks when she had no capacity to separate, analyse, rationalise, or consider.

But now?

Things weren't different, per se. Only a month had passed since the attack, but there were rumblings she could no longer ignore. The beast of a thought had been buried at the bottom of a deep grave of emotions. Everything had been calling it to the surface in whispers she could barely hear, but they were getting louder.

Each day. Each interaction.

She would be ready when it finally broke ground.

Or, maybe not.

"Arguments?" Draco's question was spoken against her cheek.

"Plenty." She fixed her eyes on him. "But they're a bit jumbled."

"Then enjoy the change in routine."

Hermione thought the moment was over, Draco would return to the office for the rest of the day, and she would watch his back as he went. But he picked up where she'd interrupted, kissing her in that languid pace of his that made her insides tighten, mind numb, and nerve endings burn. His hands returned to her face, and his thumb swiped her cheek while Hermione stepped closer, moving her lips with his.

Enjoying the moment.

Getting her fill until the next break from routine.

As dangerous as this was, like iron smelting in a forge, kissing Draco felt safe. He never pushed for more than she offered. No expectations. No promises. No responsibilities. They found intrinsic simplicity in touch. Each time it was harder to stop, to step back, and to prevent herself from selfishly taking more.

She wanted more.

"Feeling less frustrated?"

The truth was too complex to discuss when only thirty minutes remained before Susan's arrival.

Yes, she was frustrated, but it had nothing to do with recovery.



Hermione was improving in all areas tested, including lung function.

If she ignored the bad news about her hand and the persistent fatigue, it left her to focus on the good, which was only made better after her first supervised attempt to Floo. Hermione wouldn't soon forget the surprised gasp from Sachs and Narcissa when she stepped out of the latter's fireplace.

Or the fact that they both looked elated.

Despite her slight disorientation, Susan provided her seal of approval as long as she limited her use until she felt stronger.

It seemed like a fair trade.

This was the first hurdle of many on her journey back to normality—a win that reinforced everything she knew about long-term recovery.

Patience and time would heal.

After a meditative session with Susan, Hermione took to the outdoors to sit at the table. Protected by charms, she watched the rain fall as a storm rolled through the city.

But not alone.

Padma was with her, sipping tea.

Before long, they were joined by Ginny, who was early picking up the kids after lessons.

And Pansy, who seemed to take the moment to inhale and—

"This is boring." The sulk in Pansy's tone matched her folded arms. "It's humid out and I want a normal Girls' Night. One with more firewhiskey and less trauma, thanks."

"I don't see why we can't have one." Padma shrugged. "Is Harry home?"

All attention shifted to Ginny. "He's there now making dinner."

"Excellent." Padma rubbed her hands together. "We can have takeaway and talk. Blaise won't mind a night alone. I'm sure Luna will join, too, and Susan and Parvati are at work, but they'll come around after, if we call."

This was quickly taking shape along with Pansy's evil grin—that died rapidly.

"You better not invite fucking Cho."

Padma smiled with all her teeth. "You know I am."

"I hate this place."

They all laughed, and Hermione realised it had been too long since they'd been together like this. She couldn't help but feel sentimental; she'd missed them.

"You in, Hermione?"

They all looked hopeful.

"I am, but it'll be odd to do this here in their living room."

"Actually." Pansy rose to her feet, looking supremely proud of herself. "I was thinking something different."

They ended up in a magical tent Zippy had set up in the garden. Much larger on the inside, the roof was clear, like her conservatory, and gave a view of the night's stormy sky. There was more than enough room for everyone to sleep, but, for now, they were in the centre of the vast main area of the tent, surrounded by pillows and blankets, and eating takeaway. Ginny, Luna, and Susan drank brew. Pansy and Parvati indulged in firewhisky. And Hermione, along with Cho and Padma, were strictly on water.

A choice for one. Healer's orders for the other two.

Padma sighed, longingly at Luna's apple brew.

"How long will you both be on potions?" Cho asked.

"I'm weaning Padma off already, except for the ones that control her migraines." Susan examined a chicken leg before putting it on her plate. "Hermione has a few more weeks. Oh, I forgot to ask earlier, but how's the new balm?"

"So far, it's good." Truthfully, she hadn't been bothered all day. "Draco hates the smell, but he can see the difference in the rash already. I don't think the scars are going anywhere but that's not my current concern."

"Keep using it for another week and let me know."

Before Hermione could respond, Parvati held up a finger as she chewed her chicken wing and swallowed quickly. They all waited for her to speak, but she chased her food with another shot of Firewhisky first. Hermione had already ruled herself out of helping her to bed with her injured wrist, but the others were silently declaring themselves not it.

Padma was losing by birthright.

"Um." Finally, Parvati fixed her attention on Hermione. "How exactly would Malfoy know?"

Everyone except Cho, who appeared equally as confused, just stared at her.

"What?"

Luna leaned over and loudy whispered to Pansy, "I think it's the Nargles."

The witch nearly choked on her food.

Susan looked to be questioning Parvati's intelligence. "They're obviously a thing."

"They are?" Parvati's eyes widened. "You are?"

"We—"

"Is it because he's been helping you since your injury?" Cho asked and Pansy instantly looked ready to throw something at her. "What? It's a valid question."

"Did you really suggest Hermione has some sort of Stockholm Syndrome?"

"I didn't say that," Cho argued. "Besides, you're mixing syndromes because that's not Stockholm Syndrome. It's called The Florence Nightingale Effect and—"

"Neither apply, actually." Hermione picked at the rice she wasn't certain she could eat. "Anyway, who wants this? I'm not hungry."

Susan took the dish.

Fencing had left her starved.

"Speaking of relationships that should be admitted, since I'm sure you're all wondering, Percy and I are fine."

Ginny made a face. "Did you really just arrange an entire Girls' Night to talk about my brother?"

"Maybe, but I offered the information, so I'll be taking this moment into therapy on Monday. Apparently I need to be more open about my relationship, so here I am. Being. Open." It sounded like her own personal brand of torture.

"That…" Cho's smile spread slowly. "That's actually really sweet."

"Sort of," Ginny said.

Pansy looked downright pleasant. "I could traumatize you with stories of our sex life to keep things balanced?"

"Gods no!"

"Fortunately for you," Pansy said as her leer faded, "I don't have many additional stories. We haven't… done that since the incident at my birthday party. Figuring out how to love him while wrestling with the very idea has crippled my libido. The attack, Hermione being kidnapped by a deranged werewolf, and losing limbs didn't help."

"Sorry?" Hermione blinked.

"Sounds complicated." The comment earned Cho a look that wasn't a glare.

"Hmm." Parvati picked up another wing, bobbing along to whatever song was stuck in her head. "I didn't think there was anything to figure out: you just do. Or is that a song?"

"Clearly you've never been in love." Pansy's sigh was needlessly dramatic. "But I can't judge, neither have I."

"Wait, you were married."

Pansy took another shot of Firewhisky and quickly followed it with one more before wincing and pushing the bottle away.

She was done for the night.

"I've said it before. Love isn't a requirement for pureblood marriages. Sometimes it happens over time, other times you leave with nothing except the clothes on your back just to get away. So I'm learning this time around, but also horrified at myself for being a fucking cliché and falling for the first man to catch my eye." Pansy scoffed. "How embarrassing, but I suppose I could have done worse. A lot worse."

"I'm still trying to find the part where you compliment my brother."

"I haven't run… again. There's the compliment." Pansy's face softened just a bit. "He was with me when I found out about the hospital attack. Draco might have kept everything together for you, but Percy kept me together while I made decisions for you. Weasley here was handling all the kids."

Ginny let out a hard sigh that told the tale of several excruciatingly long days.

"Hermione." There was a pause, and a look passed over Pansy's features. "If you get hurt like that again, I'll strangle you myself. Same for you, Patil."

"Okay?" she and Padma replied with mutual looks then small laughs, leaning against each other.

"Same." Ginny raised her chicken wing and pointed it at them. "That goes for you both."

"Goes for you all." Susan took a swig of beer. "I'm not in the mood to reattach my friends."

They all toasted to that.

And each other.

Hours passed with sarcastic comments, conversation, music, and food. Plenty of laughter erupted from Ginny, Parvati, and Pansy as they attempted to out drink each other—a bad decision that may have seemed right at the time, but left Cho taking the lead to care for them while Padma and Hermione played backup. Susan and Luna went to digest in peace, the latter using the excuse to braid the former's hair. A few levitating charms was all it took to tuck the three inebriated witches into the largest bed in the tent.

Something inside Hermione unravelled as her thoughts receded to the back of her mind. When she and Padma were lying on the blankets between Luna and Susan, looking up at the sky, it seemed as though the last bits of tension were finally unwinding.

Not forgotten, but serving as another thread that fortified their bond.

"I said yes to eloping on Saturday," Padma whispered in the silence. "Blaise—"

"What!" Cho squealed so loud that they all cautiously looked at the sleeping witches, but none had moved. "Where? What do we wear? What time? W—"

Padma just laughed until she clutched her sides and Hermione watched.

She looked so happy.

"Hermione's greenhouse. Ten in the morning. Since we're still doing the family wedding as planned, we just want it casual. As for the rest, I don't care, I'm just ready to get married. Finally."

"We can do hair," Cho prattled on, clearly thrilled for her best friend. "Oh, and I can do your makeup. I—"

"No, no makeup." Contentment relaxed Padma and her soft smile spread. "I'll marry him just as I am. That was one of his two requests. He loves my scars and doesn't want me to cover it up."

Everything fell into a silence buzzing with excitement.

Given the continued conversation, Hermione felt it more than anyone.

It left her restless with a burning desire to speak and know and learn. She had to ask. "How—" A familiar flush of panic and a tightness in her chest made her rethink. "Nevermind."

The topic was too tender. She curled her fist against her chest and tried to beg the stars to answer her silent question, but they didn't respond.

It left her wide awake as conversation meandered from one topic to the next. One by one, they each fell asleep, curled together, covered in blankets, and surrounded by pillows. The last to go was Padma, who tossed and turned. Her eyes were shut when she turned towards Hermione.

"Can't sleep?"

"No."

"It's easier to sleep when I'm pissed."

Her last words before her breathing evened kept Hermione awake.

"It's hard to sleep without him."

An hour passed with her staring at the waning gibbous moon when she made the decision to extract herself from Padma's grip and wander from the tent back into the house.

Hermione started to check in on Scorpius before she remembered he was sleeping over with Albus. It was before midnight, so she continued to the office where she thought she might find Draco working or researching, but the room was empty and devoid of movement beyond the diamonds hovering over the map.

A slow trip up the steps left her winded and tired by the time she opened the door to the guest room.

Where Draco was not asleep.

The lights were on, and he was laying on his back, shirtless, wearing his glasses and reading in bed with one hand behind his head. Grey eyes cut to her immediately, and Hermione shut the door behind her with a gentle click before crossing the room.

"Everyone's asleep?"

"Yes."

"But not you."

Hermione could hear her laboured breathing while changing out of her pyjamas and into the shirt he routinely brought but never wore.

"I'm fine." She didn't need to look to know he was carefully watching her. "Just winded."

Turning around only confirmed it, but she rolled her eyes and crawled into bed. Sitting up, she crossed her legs, faced him, and placed her fist on the sheets between them.

"I went to your office first. I thought you might be there working or sleeping."

"You looked at the map?" Draco put down his book and sat up fully, extending his hand and waiting for her to offer her closed fist in return.

"For a bit. I'm forever curious." She hissed when he tried to slowly work her hand open. "Been like that for a few hours."

"That you said nothing with your Healer in the same tent is another one of your aggravating qualities."

"I have many." Hermione gave a shrug that caused the oversized shirt to slip from her shoulder. "Most annoy you."

Draco didn't disagree. Hermione's smile withered when he began massaging the tension out of the base of her palm just to get her fingers to relax enough to open. The feeling in it hadn't improved. Hermione could only frown and grit her teeth as he diligently stretched each finger open, slipping his between each to roll her wrist.

He'd been doing it nightly without fail.

After he finally massaged her palm open all the way, Hermione laid down for Draco to look her over. She knew he was looking at all her hotspots for rashes and lingering bruises. The last of them had finally faded.

But that didn't stop him from touching the spots where the marks had once been.

Invisible to everyone except him.

"You know." Hermione's voice dragged his eyes from her neck to her face. "I'm starting to not believe it when you say you're not a romantic man."

"I'm not. Nothing I've done is romantic."

Hermione scoffed. "If not, what is it then?"

"A duty." Draco ran a thumb up the scar on her leg. "A decision."

She shivered when he kissed the fading splinch marks on her fingers.

"A choice."

It wasn't until Draco's arms were wrapped around her, and his breathing deepened with sleep's arrival that Hermione finally joined him and gave herself to the rest that had been running from her all night.

She felt as though she was falling in all the ways a human could.

But sleep came the quickest.



October 19, 2011


"Love is more than a word and the feelings that accompany it…"

Rings exchanged.

Vows made.

Love, like the hum of magic, was unmistakable.

A tangible pressure, alive and free, held Hermione's emotions as tightly as Scorpius held her hand. She was sitting amongst friends in a half circle around the couple standing under the hanging vines, and bathed by the morning sun pouring into the greenhouse.

She peeked over at Albus, who was swinging his legs in jittery energy, then James, who was sitting between her and Ron. They exchanged smiles when he mouthed that he was bored. Her eyes caught on Ron as he affectionately ruffled his nephew's hair, gaze sweeping to her before moving on to the couple.

Hermione did the same.

"It is more than patience and takes more than strength…"

All eyes had been on Padma since she entered the greenhouse, arm-in-arm with Cho, and dressed in ivory with lavender flowers woven intricately into her braided hair. But the bride's eyes hadn't strayed from one man.

Blaise.

Little nods, choked up laughs, and wide smiles passed between them while Kingsley blessed the union both with magic and words of wisdom.

"Love is more than time…"

The incandescent glow of the cords wrapped around their joined hands served as a representation of the love and devotion that bound them together, not only in the moment, but for the rest of their lives.

Hermione's eyes slipped to Neville and Luna. They were looking around the decorated greenhouse with twin pleased smiles, no doubt proud of their hard work that morning. Lily's eyes were also wandering around the room while sitting on her mother's lap, and then her gaze meandered over to Scorpius, who tilted his head past the groom to the man behind him.

His father.

"Love is more than learning and communication…"

Whose eyes were now on them.

For a moment, Hermione allowed herself to look. Draco was surrounded by greenery, under the glow of the sun, and not wearing anything black.

Grey trousers and tie. White shirt. Fitted navy vest—last button unfastened.

In more than monochrome, Draco should have blended in—blue, grey, and green always worked harmoniously—but he stood out to her.

More than ever.

"Love is more than a mystery…"

Minutes ticked by, but they held each other's gaze as if passing a flickering flame between them in the midst of a storm. What should have been extinguished by a number of outside forces burned on.

Burned brighter.

"Love just… is."

Applause and cheers sent them hurling back into the moment as their friends kissed for the first time as husband and wife. Still scattered by the exchange, Hermione shook it off and joined the others, all smiles and joy. Charmed flower petals followed the couple from the makeshift altar under vines and out the door, where they would spend their first moments of marriage alone.

Everyone else got to work. They created a table large enough for everyone to sit comfortably, cast spells on the wireless to play music, and moved the chairs into place around the table. Zippy appeared with a pop and set a prepared meal in each place. By the time Blaise and Padma returned, hand-in-hand, everyone was arranged around the decorated table, waiting to celebrate.

The children—minus Halia, who stared wide-eyed at anyone not familiar—had a little table of their own. They all seemed content with it after Al made it known that his seat would be between James and Scorpius. Lily remained unbothered as long as she had food.

Which was plentiful.

Padma radiated happiness, and Blaise looked at his wife with clear adoration. As Hermione scanned the large table, she reflected on how much her circle had grown and changed. Those who had always been there were still present, even more in the last month, and bonds had strengthened, changed, and grown between others.

And their relationships had naturally shifted amongst each other, though she hadn't noticed the changes as they'd happened.

Percy was integrated in the group and Pansy only shook her fist at Ron once. Blaise, Dean, and Harry got along too well as the latter two welcomed the former into the Married Club. Susan and Padma expressed interest in Kingsley's bee farm. Neville and Theo had similar taste in music, and Daphne was finally ready to rejoin Girls' Night. Ron and Cho discovered their mutual love for losing teams while Halia was passed around. She'd settled with Andromeda and a bottle while Luna looked on, just as enamoured with the baby as the baby was with her leaf earrings.

And then there was Draco.

Often detached and quiet in a group setting, today Draco was engaging outside of his core set of friends.

No arguments passed between him and Ron, just looks and general ignorance of the other's presence. It was honestly better than anyone could have hoped for.

What once was only a hint of friendship between Draco and Percy had bloomed, evidenced in the familiar way they spoke and the casual volley of questions between them. He and Dean treaded lightly around a conversation on Muggle sports and nearly the entire table fell silent when Draco mentioned liking cricket; then quieter still when Dean's invitation to golf with him and Neville one day was not declined.

"I'll think about it."

The response may have been tentative, but it sounded like acceptance.

For them both.

Draco remained at her side while Blaise and Padma danced together on the makeshift dance floor between four columns wrapped in flowery vines. The sun was still rising to the peak of day, music floated through the speakers, and when the song ended and others started to split off and join, it was a sign that the festivities had truly begun.

Everyone started to break off. Some danced, others chatted, and the kids alternated between playing and running around the greenhouse. Lily toddled after them until she gave up and started picking the flowers, then running from her dad when he noticed. Her peals of laughter rang out above them all as she dodged him like a snitch.

Hermione circled between talking, dancing, and sitting.

She was dancing with Neville when Ron cut in.

"You look beautiful."

The compliment made her look over at Neville, who was laughing with Ginny as they danced. She didn't know how to respond in a way that wouldn't dissolve into an argument.

"I didn't say that as a—" Ron's exhale was laden with frustration. "I mean, I'm trying to be your friend. Just your friend."

Maybe it was the polite distance between them as they swayed to the music, maybe it was the fact that his hand and eyes weren't too low, but something in his voice and demeanour made her believe him.

She wanted to start anew. "How have you been?"

Hermione hadn't seen him much during her recovery. Despite Molly's semi-regular visits, Harry said Ron didn't feel comfortable at the Malfoys' home, which made sense. The suspension of hostilities between him and Draco seemed tenuous at best. Proximity would only challenge it. Break it.

"I've been good." Ron was vague but not leading. "You're better than I last saw you."

"Getting there." She remembered something. "Thanks for what you did for my parents. Thanks for telling them everything. I ha—"

"Didn't think it would be easy for you to talk about, and when I realised they didn't know, I just…" He half-shrugged. "I thought you needed a little help. I only just told Mum last year about leaving you and Harry in the forest. Hard to talk about moments that aren't our proudest."

There were several of those between them that had nothing to do with the war.

But the song ended and Ron left. Curiously, she watched him go, until Draco caught her eye. He was approaching her, but Theo intercepted him, gesturing that they needed a word. Before she could wonder, or even leer at Pansy, who had been dragged onto the dance floor by Percy, Luna was there and dramatically bowed to ask for the next dance.

She accepted.

"You'll be next, I think." There was zero reaction time to Luna's cryptic comment before her friend spun her around in a disoriented circle, made laughable and chaotic by the degree of Hermione's dip due to their similar height. "Ah, summer."

Hermione was confused. "Luna, it's autumn."

"We can dance with the faeries." Luna acted like she hadn't said a word.

"It's October?"

"When the Apothecary Roses bloom."

What?

Luna flitted off before Hermione could figure out what she was on about, and she shook her head at her strange friend, chuckled, then returned to the table where Padma was sitting for the first time. She was watching Blaise dance with Daphne, who was speaking seriously to him while he nodded along. Likely giving the groom some advice. She was good like that.

Padma reached over and covered her hand, and they looked around in silence at their friends.

"Susan's clearing me to go on very light duty." Padma's revelation caused a gasp to escape Hermione without warning. "I know, but it's a two hour shift twice a week in the Accidental Magic clinic. I asked for it, but now I'm thinking I don't want to be there alone."

"I can keep you company. Purely observational."

Padma gave her a look of disbelief. "I doubt you're ready to set foot in St Mungo's."

"I'm just getting used to casting with my left hand and my right—" Though she hadn't worn her sling since yesterday, there were little signs of improvement. "No, I'm not ready to go back in any capacity, but I don't think I'll have an issue keeping you company while you reverse accidental charms."

"We'll talk it over with Susan, but nothing's set in stone until I get back. We're going to Mallorca for a week to get away. I—" Padma paused, and her eyes lifted over Hermione. "He doesn't keep too far, does he?"

"No." Hermione knew who she was referring to without turning. "He doesn't."

Draco was like that.

Close but not.

When she danced with Neville, he was speaking with Pansy in the corner. When she was talking to Ron and Susan, Draco, who had taken a cranky Halia from her mother and was walking around the greenhouse with her, was followed by Albus, who froze each time he looked over his shoulder.

Like a game.

After leaving Padma, when Cho sat on the other side, Hermione drifted from conversation to conversation, substituting one lingering Malfoy with another.

Scorpius.

Mostly, he'd been entertained with the Potters, by his father's side, or, on one memorable occasion, comparing bowties with Percy, but sometimes he would drift to her side, linger a bit, and leave. The third time he did it she was sitting at the table with Ron, Cho, and Parvati, who was in the middle of dramatically declaring herself dead from the sight of Draco with a sleeping baby while talking to Andromeda and Kingsley.

Hermione could relate.

Not that she admitted such a thing in Ron's presence—especially with the way he was side-eyeing Parvati. Cho smiled at Blaise and Padma, who were back to dancing, surrounded by various couples of their friends.

The song ended and Scorpius returned to her side again.

"Hi."

Hermione straightened his striped bowtie, once again ignoring how similarly dressed he and Draco were. Only, where his father wore grey, Scorpius was in khaki. And when he blushed fiercely and fled to his aunt's side, she and Daphne exchanged curious looks from where she was chatting with Luna and Dean.

They both shrugged when he buried his face in her dress.

Ron asked Cho to dance during the confusing exchange and they were gone, but shortly after Hermione settled back in her chair, Parvati's squeak served as a warning of Draco's approach.

He sat next to Hermione after adjusting Halia in his arms. She didn't look at all pleased about being moved, but she settled quickly, breathing deeply with her fingers in her mouth and drooling on his shoulder.

Hermione fixed the back of her dress where it had ruffled up.

"Love the new look for you," Parvati blurted out in something close to a yell.

They both turned to her.

"New look?" Draco dripped sarcasm and Hermione nearly elbowed him.

"You know." She gesticulated wildly in his direction. "From the black."

"It's a wedding." He gave her a blank look. "Who wears black to a wedding?"

That made Hermione recoil. "Who wears—you wore black to a solstice party."

"I didn't have time to change."

"Wait, you would have worn colour?" Parvati looked like she was imagining it. Hermione tried to as well, albeit quietly, not at all thinking about how that night had ended.

"No."

Parvati's smile fell and Hermione's warmed above a chuckle.

"I'll hold Halia." Parvati opened both arms. "That way you two can dance the next one."

She and Draco exchanged looks.

"Would you?"

"Do you even dance?" Hermione regretted the question when his playful expression dimmed. It made her scramble. "I would, but no pressure—"

Draco's eyes shifted from her to another sight that gave her pause.

Scorpius had returned, shuffling from foot to foot, and opening and closing his fists at his side. All clear signs of anxiety. The only thing that kept her from worrying was when he looked over his shoulder at Albus who gave him a 'go on' gesture before looking around and running in the direction of Ginny and James. He joined them and they both dragged her out to the floor where Harry was already twirling a laughing Lily around in his arms.

Scorpius bravely stepped closer, lifting his hands to sign his question.

Dance?

Then, he offered his hand, and looked at her with sincerity in his big, blue eyes.

Oh.

All of his oddities from earlier made perfect sense.

Hermione looked at Draco. "Do you mind?"

"I don't." His small, warm look told her he meant it.

"Then yes." She turned back to Scorpius and accepted his offered hand. "I'd love to dance."

The walk to the floor was quick, but when they got there and faced each other, Scorpius started looking around, trying to figure out what to do next. Al and James were revolving around Ginny as if she were the sun and Harry was dangling Lily by her arms. The music was much too slow for their chaos. With her hand, both options weren't possible, but then she slowly opened her other hand and asked for his, despite the pain. From there, they held hands and swayed to the beat of the song. Scorpius laughed the first time she showed him how to spin around.

It was easy to get lost dancing.

Songs blurred together as Albus and James joined them, then Lily. Soon, Hermione was locked in a circle of children on the dance floor, laughing with them, enjoying herself, and accepting each and every hug given.

Lily gave her a fist full of petals she'd smuggled in the pockets of her dress.

"Thanks?"

The toddler meowed.

It wasn't until the music stopped and the newlyweds thanked everyone for sharing this day with them that Hermione realised the opportunity had passed. Looking around, she had to lean before she spotted Draco by the window—alone, watching everyone with an even expression.

And then it was over.

Blaise and Padma had gone to the Zabini Manor to spend the rest of their first day as husband and wife together. Everyone showered them in flower petals until they made it out the door and then they all worked together and started cleaning up the greenhouse.

The Potters were the first to leave. Lily was tired after an afternoon of dancing, eating, and general chaos, but the boys were energetic and eager for a cartoon film even Hermione knew they wouldn't finish. Al and James begged for Scorpius to come along, and she figured Draco had agreed when she spied him kneeling in front of his son, signing and speaking to the nodding boy.

And then accepting his abrupt hug. It lasted so long the Potters were gathered and waiting for him by the door of the greenhouse when he finally pulled away. Scorpius then rushed over to Hermione for a hug that didn't last nearly as long before he left.

He looked back once at them both.

Draco remained kneeled, blinking in surprise, long after Scorpius was gone.

An hour later, the greenhouse was back in its pre-wedding condition and everyone had said their goodbyes.

Not quite ready to leave, Hermione took a slow walk around, taking note of all the changes that had occurred in the last month. The growth. The new additions Neville had brought in. The newly planted almond tree he'd quietly gifted her. There were other plants she had no recollection of, too, but she didn't have time to figure out their origins, distracted instead by the defiant summer plants that showed no signs of going dormant for the impending winter.

Odd.

Hermione wondered if it was time to expand, if she'd grown out of the space as it was. Hard to believe it had changed so much since she'd planted her first seeds with the hope of filling the bare space with life.

And now, through the care of others, it was flourishing.

There was a ribbon left behind on the branch of one of the trees, high enough for her to need the step stool in order to pull it down. She still had to reach, and the tips of her fingers were almost there when hands settled on her waist.

Kept her steady.

Hermione didn't jolt, only slowly turned to find they were face to face.

"I thought you'd gone to the brewing room."

"I did." He reached up and pulled the ribbon down with ease. "Then I came back to find you. I thought you'd be finished exploring by now."

"There are new plants I haven't seen bef—"

"I believe you owe me a dance." Draco helped her off the stool and didn't let her hand go.

"I do." Hermione blinked at him. "But there isn't any music."

Draco insisted, in that stoic way of his, and she relented.

Surrounded by lush greenery and under the warm rays of the sun as it began its descent, they moved to the music of silence, undisturbed until their shadows stretched under the setting sun. More swaying than actual dancing. More fragments of words than actual conversation. His hand remained a presence on the small of her back, and hers stayed twined with his once he'd worked her fingers open. At some point, Hermione rested her head on his chest, closed her eyes, and inhaled, not ready for the inevitable end.

"Are you staying here tonight?"

"No." Hermione lifted her head. "At least, not alone."

There it was again.

The same thing that had been there for days and weeks and months.

Just beneath the surface, palpable tension mixed with the portent of everything unspoken.

"I shouldn't." Grey eyes moved away, only returning when she tightened her grip on his shirt.

"Why?"

"You're under Healer's orders and I'm—I'm selfish."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

When her hand wandered down the centre of his back, skimming the top of his belt and changing the implication of their dance, Draco's eyebrow rose slowly in interest.

"I just think with how much you give to others, and how little time you devote to yourself, I have a hard time finding fault in you for that." Hermione stepped closer, heart speeding up as the air between them thickened. "Have you done anything truly selfish? Not for anyone else. Not to attain any goal. Just for you."

"Twice." Draco let go of her hand, and when his fingers skimmed the strap of her pale yellow dress, all pretence of innocuous dancing dissolved. "The first attempt didn't work out in my favour."

"And the second?"

"Hmm." Draco's expression was indecipherable. "I'm still trying to figure it out."

Hermione was used to him being cryptic, but that didn't stop her from attempting to decode his message anyway.

"And you?" The question was breathed against her hairline in a voice so low it sent a spark through her veins. "When have you done something selfish?"

"I don't know." It would have been easy to step back after the confession, but his hand at the curve of her spine kept her in place. Heat flared when it moved lower, and his touch was firmer as his lips grazed her ear. "I-It's been a long time since I've wanted anything that wasn't a necessity."

"That implies you want something you don't think you should."

"And if I do?" Hermione leaned back just enough for her to catch the bob of his Adam's apple as he swallowed. "I have rules. I believe even you commented on the fact that everything in my garden serves a purpose. But rules are just that: rules. And sometimes they're meant to be broken."

"Is that what you want?"

"That depends." Hermione toyed with the unfastened button on his vest. "Are you going to tell me no?"



The walk back to the house was electric with unspoken desire.

Passing exchanges and brushing hands, tension dissipated in a thunderclap of motion as soon as they passed through the conservatory's threshold. Frenetic kisses and moans, whispered directions and touches, untucked and unbuttoned clothing. They were speeding along until a lone discussion point stopped him.

"I didn't bring anythi—"

"I'm on a potion. Have been since—"

He swallowed the rest of her words.

Soon, Hermione was too busy holding on, and moulding her body to his as they kissed in all the ways that proved he'd been holding back. Pleasure spiked heat and pain from the first clack of teeth. Hermione was just as urgent, eager, and willing to allow him the access he clearly wanted.

Licking into her mouth, Draco teased her tongue with his as she found the more her hands had been searching for by reaching into already unfastened trousers and wrapping a hand around his cock. They both gasped when she started stroking, reacquainting herself with the weight of him in her palm.

Draco hissed the first time his hips moved on their own, and wrapped a shaky hand around her arm.

"Wait." He broke their kiss once more, that time with a deep sigh as he nipped her lip. They were forehead to forehead, nose to nose. "Take it slow."

"I thought we were being selfish."

"We are."

"Let me go first." She led the way to the chaise, only letting go long enough for Draco to follow through with her first request: "Take everything off."

There was little preamble in how Draco undressed, but Hermione watched every step until he stood before her wearing nothing except ink on his skin. She resumed touching him, hands and lips roaming every place she could reach, before giving him the nudge to sit then standing between his open legs.

A light flush tinged his cheeks, but Draco looked at her with blatant want in his eyes.

Chest rising and falling.

Tongue sweeping across his bottom lip as he fixed his mouth to speak, but everything died when she sank to her knees.

"Fuck Granger, you don't—"

"I want to."

Draco looked like he'd swallowed his tongue when she gripped the base and tasted him for the first time.

It was different.

Awkward.

But there was something intoxicating about the intensity rolling off him. Something addicting about the feel of his cock on her tongue. The thickness. The taste. Something heady about the single choked off moan that escaped his lips—the combination made all hesitation dissolve into ash.

Hermione moved in earnest, building to a rhythm that had her hollowing her cheeks on every pull. A hand gripped the edge of the chaise tightly, the other came to the back of her head. Success could be measured in many ways, but Hermione judged hers by the frequency and intensity of the obscenities Draco couldn't help but utter—praises a man could only give when he was on the verge of losing his mind.

His blissed out face, unconsciously rocking hips, and heavy breathing drowned every shred of residual insecurity as she dragged him closer to the edge.

Hermione couldn't look away.

She didn't want to.

And he couldn't either.

The first time she squeezed the base of his cock and took him in deep enough for the tip to touch the back of her throat, Draco shook and his mouth fell open, even as he tried to pull away.

"Fuck, I'm—"

Her slight nod sent him reeling; every careful action was driven by pure need.

Strokes quickened, her jaw sore and aching, but Hermione was too determined to stop. Draco broke eye contact once to throw his head back. The sight made Hermione clench her thighs and moan around his cock. He dropped his head, gripped her chin, and held her there as he broke with her name on his lips before it faded into a guttural groan.

She swallowed everything he gave.

 

When she wobbled to her feet, feeling disoriented, a curving hand around her waist brought her closer. Draco angled his head to kiss her, but she leaned away.

"I don't give a fuck about that."

Lips captured hers and released.

Then again.

Bolder and deeper, Draco seemed to search her mouth for every hint of himself before pulling away.

"My turn." His whisper was harsh and ragged. "Turn around."

For once, Hermione did as she was told with no argument, biting her lip in anticipation. Draco tilted her head to the side, lips grazing her neck, before easing one strap off her shoulder.

Then the other.

Soon, she was just as bare as him.

Reverent kisses left currents of heat that shifted as he moved. His lips skimmed every scar, and paid homage to every flaw. Murmured words slid against her skin like a promise Hermione let him keep with a sigh as she closed her eyes and let go. Draco picked her up like she weighed nothing, before laying her on the chaise.

His hands were worship in touch; his mouth poured praise.

Licking, sucking, and caressing, she felt lightheaded in ways she hadn't been in so long. Molten lava pooled between her legs at the thought of more.

Draco spread her thighs and settled between them.

It was instinct, the way she opened for him, and there was purpose in the tilt of her hips. A sharp inhale was loud in the silence as his lips burned her skin everywhere they touched, and he worked a finger inside her wet cunt. His kisses drew closer to her core, but Draco's pause left her unsure.

Aware.

"You—"

Hermione never finished, seizing up as sure fingers spread her lips and his tongue touched her cunt. Letting out a gasping breath, she carded her fingers through his hair.

Unease seemed to creep back in, clumsiness in a way he typically wasn't, but Draco took his time familiarising himself with the act and her body. The low timbre of the moan that slipped out of his mouth vibrated against her skin, sending a bolt of lightning straight to her core. Before long, Draco had her quaking as he slipped a second finger inside, stretching and curling them in all the right ways to make Hermione clench.

She couldn't stop looking, touching, and praising.

"So good."

Draco froze for the span of a breath before doubling his efforts while he kept his eyes trained on her—watching, learning, feeling. He had her frantic, arched against his mouth, with breathy, high-pitched sounds leaving her as he held her shaking legs apart.

The command was in his eyes.

Come.

"Wait."

Draco immediately stopped and it was all she could do to tear her eyes away, catch her breath, and twist to the side to stop herself from following his silent instructions.

"Too much?"

Maybe that, too, but Hermione shook her head. "Not here."



Her bed wasn't as large as the one they'd been sharing, but that was the last thing on her mind when he brought her leg over his hip, found the right angle, and slowly sank into her. The feeling was new in this position, laying on their sides, and kissing him did little to stop the sighs from escaping them both.

There was something emotional and raw about sex that Hermione had never realised before.

Not just an act of bodies, it was an exchange of minds—the process of emptying one while filling the other over and over until there was completion.

It was the fulfillment of desires.

A connection.

A different language from the one she spoke, but the interpretation remained the same.

They might have been beside one another, but Draco was in control. Steady and easy, he fucked her like he was savouring the experience, like he was searching for a spot in her soul to call his. Draco was all she knew in that moment. All she felt. He was buried deep inside of her, a stretch that blended pleasure and pain. The snap of his hips felt so good she couldn't help but shudder and shake against his lips.

They weren't kissing, merely exhaling gasps and brushing lips. He started to touch her, but she shook her head.

"Like this." She was drowning in his eyes. "Just like this."

She wanted it too much.

Wanted him too much.

Her body ached wonderfully under his control until she couldn't stand the intensity and kissed him again instead. It didn't help. She knew it was coming but her orgasm still caught her unaware, tensing around him with a ragged shout.

Draco dropped his head on her shoulder, mouthing and swearing against her skin, when she clamped and pulsed around him. He shuddered as she quaked. But he fucked her through it, still deep, still slow, though his grip was tighter and his breath shook against her neck.

"Tell me I can." His voice was nothing more than a rumble, low and full of want. "Please."

She couldn't tell him no. "Yes."

"Fuck."

His curse sounded more like a plea for mercy he hadn't earned yet.

But he would.

Maybe she was predictable. Still hazy from her orgasm, she found herself being dragged to the next. It didn't take him long to figure her out, to know what she liked, how to touch her, and when to draw her back to the edge. His rhythm had them both gasping and clinging to the other as tightly as they could.

"Oh."

This was different. It was—

Draco eviscerated the thought by biting down on her lip as his thrusts sharpened and his hips snapped against hers.

The sound. The beads of sweat that ran down her brow. The feel of him. Of them. Together.

It was messy and human and so overwhelming that Hermione didn't realise she wasn't breathing until he pushed in as deep as he could.

"Breathe."

Hermione exhaled and tilted her hips just enough to make him hiss. Make him shake. He let go, mouthing at her shoulder and breath heavy as he bit down.

They came together.

It felt like flying and falling all at once, both dizzying and electrifying in the heady rush of release—not just her climax, but emotions that burst free.

There and gone, it dissipated into the atmosphere between them.

Hermione felt the beat of his heart just as he felt hers, but the rhythm was different.

Forever changed by the steady thrum of affection.

Devotion.

Love.

Startled by the devastating realisation, Hermione closed her eyes tight as her heart stumbled, slipped, then fell over the truth. She was drowning in him and everything that held heavier meaning than what they'd just done.

Draco rubbed her back and held her as they both drifted in silent reflection.

Side by side. Face to face. Limbs entwined over the covers.

There was more she wanted to say, but she knew she couldn't.

Not now.

Not like this.

"What—" Hermione cleared the thickness from her throat. "What do you want to talk about tonight?"

Anything would be better than the sheer insanity she was ready to confess with the slightest push.

Draco, whose hand was touching her hair, paused in his action. "Us."

It was the very last thing she wanted to speak about at that moment. She didn't trust herself or anything she was likely to say.

"I think…" She heaved a sigh and closed her eyes. "It feels like everything's too fast, too busy, too chaotic. I wish we could slow it down and let things settle. I know there's a lot undefined but I just—I like what we are right now. I'm not ready for that to change yet."

Draco continued stroking her hair, but said nothing.

 

Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.
Plato